I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. Given the Covid and the campaigns, then the elections, then the counting–the angst of the unknown–it just kind of wears you down. Regardless of which side you’re on. Plus the last couple of columns I’ve done were pretty labor-intensive. So this time I’m going to do something a bit easier. Hopefully no less interesting or entertaining for you, but requiring far less research and photo-finding on my part.

As I was digging through my files a while back looking for something else, I came across this fat envelope filled with colorful and uninhibited rods and customs, and I set it aside saying, “That will make a fun column.” Now’s its time.

The birth of suede:  Primer is a flat, easy-to-sand basecoat made to go under shiny colors. Common primer colors are grey, black, or rust red. Back in the day, you could get white primer and add any color tint you wanted, usually a pastel, such as light blue. Some did it to make a primer-spotted or patina’d car look better for sale or until it was ready for real paint. But sometime around the turn of this century, given the ubiquity of basecoat/clearcoat paints, certain segments of the rod and custom community stopped after a good basecoat of a bright solid color, maybe a metallic, or even a pearl, and said, “Umm, I like that smooth satiny look. Let’s leave it.” Since the basecoats were catalyzed, they wouldn’t absorb water and allow rust, as primer would. Some even went so far as to add a flattening agent to a topcoat or clear, just to ensure the satin finish would last and be cleanable. Ralph Gonzales’ ’51 F-1 pickup from Gilroy is chromed, slammed, and otherwise finished in a smooth suede coat of tangerine pearl, and we saw it on the scene, just like this, for several years.


I’m not a fan of the term “Rat Rod.”  But I have to admit that I love ground-scraping, smooth suede customs and especially Roth-like radically chopped and channeled hot rods with loud pipes, long shifters, blanket seats, flames, scallops, primer, and maybe occasionally smoking tires. So the name on this envelope was “Cow Palace Rat Rod Show ’05.” This was a new car show phenomenon, and this was the name they gave it at Rick Perry’s San Francisco Rod, Custom and Motorcycle Show.

Yes, the chopped, flamed one is a Hudson. Many of the cars were ’50s. Most participants were in their 20s.

Now I’m trying to keep this simple. But there were some twists and turns in the history of the “Oakland Show” during this period that I don’t want to try to explain. Suffice to say that the show moved to the sprawling Oakland Coliseum complex in 1967, first in an underground building between the football and basketball stadiums, then into the tall, round, glass-fronted Basketball arena. But in 1998 the city decided to rebuild the Basketball building, and didn’t finish until ’03. So GNRS promoter/owner Don Tognotti scrambled to find alternate venues, one being a huge, leaky tent in the Coliseum parking lot during a constant rainstorm. For the celebrated 50th Annual show, he moved it to the venerable (some said “dilapidated”) San Francisco Cow Palace in early 1999. That show seemed successful, but afterward–for reasons quite unknown–Tognotti literally checked out, and a guy named Dan Cyr bought the rights to the Grand National Roadster Show (GNRS) and the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster trophy (AMBR), holding it at other sites until quite surprisingly moving it south to the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona in 2004. I think current GNRS owner/promoter John Buck acquired the Pomona show in ’05, because ’06 was the year Ford helped him stage the hugely successful 75th Anniversary of the ’32 Ford there in Building 9. It was also the first year they turned the building across from it into the Suede Palace, for cars like the ones shown here, organized by “Axle” Idzardi of the Shifters club. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.

Reeps’ chopped and channeled ’34 Ford pickup runs a hopped up Chevy 6.

I feel compelled to explain some of this because, though 15+ years ago doesn’t seem like history to me, it must to many of you…and it is. Plus, the main point of this column–besides just being fun–is that this was the first big indoor car show to initiate a “Suede” room. These photos were taken at the 2nd iteration, in ’05, and apparently I sold stories on it to Hot Rod as well as Custom Car magazine in England. Besides lots of outtake slides, the fat envelope included copy, captions, and a show program, so I’m really going to kick back and paraphrase a bit of what I wrote then.

Stephen Wilson’s chopped, channeled and primed A sedan has way more Webers than its 348 can use, but it’s all nicely done.

After the 50th (and terminal) “Oakland Show,” Rick Perry picked up what pieces he could and carried on at the Cow Palace. It was the last remaining large indoor car show–with all the usual car show stuff–in the S.F. Bay Area. But then Perry had a brilliant idea. So-called “Rat Rod” outdoor summer shows, such as Billet Proof, the Rattle Can Nationals, and of course Paso Robles, were growing rapidly. Out behind the main Cow Palace arena was this huge building divided into several enormous rooms originally designed to hold livestock (i.e., cows) back when the Cow Palace held rodeos, cattle auctions, and such. The prior year–the first time ever at an indoor car show as far as I know–Rick experimented by opening some of the space to a large display of local “rat rods,” as organized by Rolfe Brittain with help from local clubs such as the Swanx and Road Zombies. Although it was seen by some as a sort of “back door” addition to the show, it was so successful that they decided to expand it to three full rooms holding some 200 cars, trucks, and bikes, plus some good on-stage rockabilly bands. They dubbed it the Rat Rod and Suede Custom display.

It made an otherwise good car show great. It didn’t just add a bunch more rods and customs to look at, it added a whole different dimension. Just imagine the contrast. You’re in a brightly lit arena full of professionally built show cars, each displayed as if it were priceless jewelry. The body fit and paint finish on all of them is flawless; chrome and polished metals abound; there’s not a spec of dirt, a loose wire, or an upholstery wrinkle anywhere. Then you walk out the back, into this other building, and everything changes completely. They’re still the same types of vehicles: hot rods, customs, and chopper motorcycles. But they’re different. Way different.

These cars were driven in, and get driven a lot. High-gloss fit and finish is actually ruled out. So is high-dollar upholstery. In fact, so is high-dollar anything. But in general hand-craftsmanship, inventiveness, closely studied tradition, or wild creativity trump big bucks. The workmanship on many of these cars is phenomenal. On others it’s exuberant–chop it more, lower it more, more carbs, more pipes, more flames! And none of it is done to win show points. There are no classes and no judging.

I ended my original articles by saying “Let’s hope this is the start of a new trend.” To some extent it was: the Suede Palace in Pomona, the Basement in Detroit, hopefully more I don’t know. But let’s take a further look at the beginning.

The Calaveras Rods and Customs club from Gilroy, CA, set up a large used car lot display. Roy Zamaripa’s “Smokin’ 36s” is a patina’d, chopped, and heavily channeled ’37 Chevy cab with some sort of Dodge grille and six Webers on the S.B. Chevy. it has no lifts, but we saw it driving everywhere for several years.

There was no judging for points, so customs could keep doors and hoods shut, the way many think they should be. Nosed, decked, shaved, slant-post-chopped, and sitting on the tarmac, Lionel Durnan’s ’51 Pontiac and Jesus Villalobos’ ’54 Chev look very fine in velvety suede.

More carbs. More pipes. More Hemis. Who needs hubcaps?

Are these cars finished or not? Maybe. Antonio’s clean, low ’50 Ford sedan from Vallejo mixes shiny green ‘flake scallops over suede black, with white tuck-n-roll inside that looks like it could have been done in Tijuana in the ’50s, or someone from T.J. today.

Several elements in this photo. The one thing missing, besides shiny paint, is show display glitz.  Several early-style choppers, such as this custom-frame hard-tail Harley in the back of Westbury Hot Rods’ ’54 5-window Chevy pickup, were part of the suede show. The beige ’29 roadster pickup with a Dodge grille in the background is John Slezas’. Both are from Concord, CA.

When I was a kid, lowriders used to “oil” their primer to make it look like this. Russ Freund, one of Thee Emperors from the Spokane, WA, area might have sprayed his with some flattened clear. The gold on the engine is beautiful, and it looks like everything else on it is highly chromed. This steel ’23 touring soon got painted lime green. Then Russ built a lavender flatty-powered T-Bucket that competed very closely for the AMBR trophy.

Is there such thing as too smooth? I personally would have added some sort of custom side chrome. Everything else on David Cardona’s gold suede sled is full custom, from the chopped top, to the twin ’56 Buick frenched taillights, to the bulleted rear pan. You can’t see the ’56 Dodge grille in front, but even that probably wouldn’t help you guess this is a ’57 Pontiac.

When I wrote this story 15+ years ago, I quipped that the gennie, uncut firewall in Mike Smith’s flatty-powered Deuce was probably worth more than the entire, apparently pristine and unpainted Fordor body. Yeah, 4-doors are still relatively cheap, thank goodness!  Kevin Cacianti was ahead of the curve painting his ’47 Ford coupe shiny putty gray. With chrome rims and a very nicely detailed 6-carb Chev mill, maybe the Mexican blankets and lack of hood kept him out of the “big room.”

Back in ’05 I wrote, “The great thing about big American hardtops from about ’58-’66 is that they come customized from the factory. Just shave ’em, slam ’em, and add some tasty paint, such as the pearl green suede and silver ‘flake top Alex Gambino put on his wife, Suzie’s, ’64 Catalina, or the gold/tangerine blend on his own Bonneville.” I might be wrong, but I think these two cars launched Gambino Customs in San Jose, which has been turning out slick customs, parts like frame-arching kits, and holding his well-known “Sit Down” event since.

I did mention inventiveness, exuberance, and more of everything, right? Yes, Rich Elliott’s whacked and chopped A coupe has two Chevy engines with four carbs and a Vertex mag each. He said he threw it together from “parts in the yard” not long before the show, and considered it more of an art piece than a street rod. However, it was apparently fully functional. Red wall tires are unique. No, the valve covers don’t match. And other questions abound on this one. All I can say is that it had nothing to do with Valley Head Service. And I’ve never seen it again, anywhere, in the last 15 years.I remember the Goodies Speed Shop name from Jungle Jim’s Funny Cars and the Brutus GTOs. Orange is apparently the color of company trucks, and this tasty Ford looks like Tangelo Pearl basecoat, with nicely matching white and orange inside. Well-known at East Bay tracks (i.e. Fremont/Baylands) it had grown to four locations, but went out of business about a year after this show–only to be sold, revived, and going strong again in San Jose today.

I hadn’t heard of Gas Monkey Garage back in ’05. I guess they have or had a TV show and people want their T-shirts. They brought this black suede, big-wheeled, low-down cartoon rod all the way from Dallas, Texas (apparently in the trailer behind it). But I don’t think I’d want to try to drive it across town.

I can’t tell you what the front bumper is on Brian Wright’s much-chopped ’54 F-100, but the bent license attests to regular road-use. Look closely to see details on this custom, such as the subtle ‘Vette-type wind splits in the hood, F-1-type creases in the sides of the fenders, tuck-n-rolled running boards, and that gold pearl suede fading into slight red towards the bottom.

How long has it been since you’ve seen a sectioned Shoebox Ford?  I mean really sectioned, like Mark Cameron’s topless ’49 Ford. The ’52 grille is a nice fit. You probably didn’t even notice it rides on big billet wheels, and you can’t see the TPI Chevy under the hood. Fine with me. That ’34 Fordor in the background, so designated on its door, belongs to Oakland’s Phil Linhares, and I know it’s still racking up plenty of cross-country miles.

Former Oakland Harley-Davidson dealer and long-time rod and custom enthusiast Bob Dron seems to always have some new, usually unusual, always tasteful car or bike project in the works or just finished. This time it was a gape-mouth, snub-nose, smooth-side, um, pickup? Bike hauler? The workmanship was excellent, but the paint was suede. I think Art Himsl had more to do with it than just the black scallops. Check the old-school ape-hanger springer Harley behind it.

I couldn’t identify the flathead straight 8 in Guido Brenner’s “Red Baron” made from a ’19 Dodge body with a hand-hammered aluminum German Helmet roof. It’s got six carbs, eight pipes, and my notes say a machine gun somewhere. This is not something you throw together over the weekend, or from parts in the yard. Since this is another one I’ve never seen again in 15 years, I’m left with two questions: What was the motivation? And did it ever get (further) finished? Of the vehicle in the foreground, the only thing I can tell you is that the skull-topped mill is a wedge Mopar.

First off, the frenzied-flamed and nicely raked ’57 Chev P.U. is Greg Villegiante’s from Milbrae, CA. Second, there were a lot more bikes in the “Big room” than in here, but all these are the kind I absolutely crave (since I was abut 13). I might prefer fishtails over martini shakers, by a little, but everything else on these two bobber Harleys is perfect, including the green and gold metalflake tanks.

If I remember, I was pressed into service as ad hoc MC of this show (son Bill helped organize). There was a stage with several good bands. As I say, there were no judged awards, but some clubs made and presented their own. And somehow Gene Winfield, Joe Bailon, Gary Minor, Von Franco, and I were recruited to select one “Best Of” car in the show. Since the majority of this group were custom-heads, there was little argument that Max Ferrell’s excellently chopped, bronze suede ’51 Merc would get the nod. I particularly like the way he placed the Packard side spear.

So is this enough “leftovers” to hold you for a couple weeks? I’m going to take a nap. Before that, I leave you with this wonderful Woodie that is neither suede, patina’d, or in anyway ratty. It belongs to John Gunsaulis, one of the founders of Thee Emperors club in Spokane, and it’s a beautiful survivor. The varnished wood is all original 1940. The black paint and McCoy-inspired flames were 30 years old then, as was the 283 Chev with six chrome carbs. Also chromed was the whole front axle and suspension. I’m pretty sure John’s dad (an avid rodder) built it, but all I really know is that he “inherited” it just like this. And still has it as far as I know.

I hope this was as much fun for you to look at today as it was for the builders and participants back in ’05. No voting here. Lots of color to make up for a dulled Halloween. No angst involved. Now it’s nap time.  See you!